THE BLOG
03/09/2009 02:47 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

On Interference

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton returns from her travels to Europe and the Middle east, including Egypt it is worth wondering about the place of human rights in U.S. relations with states with poor human rights records that are vital to U.S. strategic interests.  In her visit to China earlier this month, Secretary Clinton's remarks about not letting human rights issues "interfere" with climate change, the economic crisis or security gave the impression that the U.S. may be relegating human rights to a secondary status.  Egypt is another strategic partner with a troubling human rights record, according to the State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, and during her stay in Egypt Secretary Clinton appeared to go out of her way not to talk about human rights, preferring to emphasize areas of cooperation between the two governments. Can the Obama administration craft a foreign policy that will demonstrate in practice that far from being a hindrance to cooperation, promoting human rights is essential to finding a remedy to many of today's most pressing strategic challenges from climate change, to economic crisis to countering the threat of terrorism?

The imprisonment of the Egyptian opposition political leader, Ayman Nour had long been a source of tension in U.S.-Egyptian relations. His release on February 18 was as welcome as it was unexpected.  Following his conviction on what appeared to be politically motivated charges on December 24, 2005, Nour had been imprisoned and in poor health.  Nour's "crime" it was widely assumed, was having dared to challenge President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt's first contested presidential elections in November 2005.

The Bush administration had pressured Mubarak to permit other candidates to compete against him so as to be able to demonstrate progress in its efforts to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle East.  Mubarak was only ever a grudging fellow traveler in the Freedom Agenda, but he was nevertheless nudged and cajoled into making some potentially significant concessions.  The commitments to "political reform," competitive elections and political pluralism, in such statements as the 2004 Alexandria Declaration: Reform in the Arab World, and through the creation of bodies like a National Human Rights Council, while set about with caveats, let some fresh air into the stultifying Egyptian political system.  Reformers like Ayman Nour stepped into this political space and a new generation of activists came to the fore in the Kefaya movement, (the Arabic word for "enough" indicating that the patience of the Egyptian people with their longest serving ruler since Muhammad Ali Pasha and Ramses II was wearing thin)and using new communications technologies like blogs and Facebook to reach Egypt's massive youthful population free of the state filter on official media.

Some have suggested that the Mubarak regime chose this moment to release Nour to demonstrate that foreign pressure, and especially U.S. pressure to improve human rights in Egypt doesn't work.  There is no doubt that Mubarak and his officials dislike being called to account for their violations of human rights.  Their supporters rail against "foreign interference" and "western hegemony" in the state controlled media, while Egypt continues to receive billions of dollars of U.S. foreign assistance on an annual basis-obviously a form of foreign interference they can live with. 

Meanwhile, Egypt has emerged as one of the governments working most aggressively to derail international human rights promotion efforts at the United Nations and elsewhere, eagerly politicking in the corridors at the U.N. Human Rights Council and the foreign ministries of the member states of the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to ensure that state to state peer pressure on human rights issues is shackled by the shibboleths of "sovereignty" and "non-interference."

The question therefore arises: if such pressure is so ineffective, why exert so much effort in deflecting and seeking to deter it?

The lesson to be taken from Nour's release is surely more in favor of the effectiveness of U.S. pressure.  Mubarak may have dug his heels in and refused to release him while under direct pressure from the Bush administration, which repeatedly and publicly decried the whole sorry spectacle of Nour's imprisonment, but it strains credulity to think that the Obama administration would have simply dropped pressure on the Nour case from the list of issues to be discussed with Cairo when the time came, and in any case the Washington Post had very publicly called for Obama to demand Nour's release before having any direct high-level contact with President Mubarak just days prior to his release.

With Secretary of State Clinton scheduled on her way to Egypt it seems much more likely that the Egyptian government wanted to remove this irritant from the relationship and to start afresh.

The Bush administration's attempts to promote human rights and democracy in Egypt, probably the richest available case history of a sustained effort to encourage positive human rights change in a strategic partner, offer two valuable lessons for the new administration.  First, that it is possible to be an aggressive and active proponent of reform, as the Bush administration undoubtedly was in 2004 - 05 as exemplified by Secretary Rice's Cairo speech from June 2005, while still engaging productively on the other strategic issues of the day.  Second, such pressure works.  The Egyptian government was making concessions to accommodate the Bush administration's loudly voiced demands and it was the U.S. side that failed to sustain its democratization efforts as it became overwhelmed by other regional problems, notably in Iraq.

The Obama administration has the opportunity to recover the Bush administration's stalled efforts to promote human rights in Egypt and the broader region.  It is to be hoped that Secretary Clinton will not pay too much heed to those who claim that human rights pressure will interfere with bilateral relations.  The introduction to this year's Country Reports had encouraging words in this regard: "We do not consider views about our performance voiced by others in the international community to be interference in our internal affairs...nor should other governments regard expressions about their performance as such."